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How China Is Literally Moving Mountains to Build Ghost Towns

Wade Shepard, author of "Ghost Cities of China," explains why the country is possibly the only place in the world where you can get away with destroying the natural landscape to build huge new cities.

by Hayden Vernon
Aug 11 2015, 2:02pm

"Thames Town", a new UK-themed town built in the Songjiang district of Shanghai for 5 billion yuan ($790 million). It's not built on reclaimed land, but it's a good example of a new town that nobody really lives in. Photo by Huai-Chun Hsu via Wikipedia.

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

An old Chinese proverb goes: "Rivers and mountains may change; human nature, never." In China's case, it would be more accurate to say that human nature itself is actively changing rivers and mountains. Like an overzealous SimCity player, the Chinese government is reclaiming land from great bodies of earth and water in its drive to build new cities.

Land reclamation is nothing new; places as diverse as Mexico City and Helsinki have been built at least partially on artificially reclaimed land. However, China's growth has also been seen by some as imperial expansion. The country's claim over the disputed territory of the South China Sea has pissed off Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines, who also lay claim to the area, and has led to calls from the US to halt all land reclamation in the area.

The group of islands China has been building in the disputed area, dubbed the "Great Wall of Sand" by Harry Harris, commander of the US Pacific fleet, has caused particular tension, with fears that China is literally changing the geopolitical landscape. Last week, the secretary-general of the ten-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) said that officials from each member nation want China to stop its land expansion, but the Chinese foreign minister insisted they have every right to continue.

Another point to all this, less touched upon by government officials, is the fact that nobody seems to be living in any of the homes built on all this reclaimed land. So why, a number of articles have asked, reclaim all this land and build all these new homes if they're going to sit there uninhabited?

I recently caught up with Wade Shepard, author of the recent book Ghost Cities of China, to talk about China's rush towards urbanization, its expansion, the truth behind what have been labeled "ghost towns," and how all this is reshaping the world.

Land reclamation in progress in the Bingzhou Peninsula (Photo Vmenkov via)

VICE: Hi Wade. How much is China expanding into the sea?
Wade Shepard: China is literally growing. Every province all down the coastline has these massive land reclamation programs in progress. As of now, China's tacking an extra 700 square kilometers [435 square miles] onto the country each year, which is larger than Singapore. The country is literally getting bigger.

Why?
China has a very imbalanced fiscal system. Municipalities are cash-strapped. According to the World Bank, municipalities in China must account for 80 percent of expenses while only receiving 40 percent of the tax revenue. So they make up this difference with land sales, and they make a massive amount of money by going out and reclaiming rural land, rezoning it as urban, and selling it for profit. Now, when it comes to coastal cities, a lot of them don't have land any more to expand. So they expand into the sea. When you look at how much money is made from reclaiming land from the sea, it's absolutely phenomenal—they're building entire cities in these places.

There's Nanhui New City [formerly Lingang New City], 60 kilometers [37 miles] outside the center of Shanghai, on the edge of Pudong, where there's no urbanization at all. Now it has its own new city built entirely from land reclaimed from the sea. They simply put a barrier out and they collect sediment and keep moving the barrier out further and further until they have this new land. Nanhui is supposed to be like this mini Hong Kong; it's made to support the new Shanghai Free-Trade Zones. This place is supposed to be like a real metropolis. It hasn't really blossomed into that yet, but it goes to show they're not just reclaiming this land and farming it; they're actually building entire cities. I don't see any check on how far they can build it out.

So it won't stop anytime soon?
It started getting out of control about five or six years ago, so the government stepped in and tried to regulate how much land these individual cities or provinces can actually reclaim. Actually controlling different municipalities—making them abide by the rules—is a little difficult, especially when it comes to land reclamation when the cost is way less than the profit of claiming this land and selling it to developers. It seems to be capped off at around 700 kilometers [435 miles] per year, or so. And doing it doesn't seem to be too heavy of an industrial maneuver.

Land reclamation at the Yangshan Deepwater Port, Shanghai, China. Photo by YHBEST1 via Wikipedia.

What is the environmental impact?
As far as actual construction goes, they have this down. Environmentally speaking, China is coastal, its wetlands are decimated—they're gone. When you build onto the sea, you destroy everything that's there, and that creates a whole mess of environmental issues. These wetlands have a very real function. Take Nanhui: There aren't nice beaches there because they need this 30-foot break-wall to protect against rising sea levels, which would traditionally be done by mangroves and coastal wetlands.

What about China's expansion into the South China Sea?
Part of it is functional, commercially, and also militarily, to have an outpost. It's an area that's becoming militarized. It's becoming one of the epicenters of the global division of power, with China on one side and the US on the other. A few different areas were claiming this area as their own, but China kind of manipulated a loophole in the rules. International rules say you can't claim an area that's submerged in water, so China went out and built on the shoal so that it's above water, so then they could officially claim it... It's a very Chinese solution to the problem. Some of these areas are very close to the Philippines, but as far as I know they never really cared about claiming this area until China wanted it.

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Some places have moved mountains to reclaim land, right?
Well, you're not gonna build a city out of mountains, so you either don't expand and don't get revenue for land sales [or you do]. It's either you don't play in the urbanization game, or you do something else. Mao had this poem, The Man Who Moved a Mountain, about a man who didn't like walking round the mountain to get to town, so he moved it. It's the same mentality. We can't build here because of the mountains? Well, we'll get rid of them.

[The city of] Lanzhou, in Gansu province, is the biggest case of mountain moving in the name of urbanization in the history of the world. They've been trying to do this for quite a while; they started in 1997. Lanzhou is in a valley, it's hemmed in by mountains and it has really horrible air. So one of the mountains, Daqingshan, they wanted to remove to increase airflow into the city. They removed half the mountain, it didn't really improve air quality and they didn't make much more land for development.

That was a complete flop, but they didn't give up. They tried again to knock down 41 square kilometers [25 square miles] of mountains—that didn't really work either. But, in 2012, they decided they were going to build a new city and are in the process of removing 700 mountains to build this city. A lot of these are more like hills—it's a desert-like region—but they went out and have built a good portion of it.

Do you think such sweeping progress is a particularly Chinese phenomenon?
I think the structure of the government leads to them being able to do massive projects and switch direction very quickly. To be able to actually do what China is doing in a country with a more democratic system, like the UK or US, is virtually impossible. In many cases, even very forward-thinking and visionary political administrations in the West can't get their large-scale development projects off the ground because there are so many different opinions, so many different sides, so much political infighting.

I mean, even building something that's relatively small and simple, like lightweight rail transportation networks, in the USA is an all-out political cluster-fuck that often take years and years of deliberation—and many are never built at all. ‎Meanwhile, China has completely revamped nearly all of its major cities, decked them out with advanced and modern public transportation systems, subways, covered its country with the most extensive high-speed rail network the world has ever known, as well as built hundreds of completely new cities all in little more than 15 years. There is a reason why droves of Western architects and engineers with big dreams are flocking to China: It's because it's a country that has a government that can make big things happen—for better or worse, of course.

So yes, I think the scale, scope and implementation of China's entire urbanization movement is a very Chinese phenomenon. There is not another country in the world that has the ability, the funding, the political clout and the will to completely rebuild their entire country from the ground up.

Let's talk about "ghost cities." What are they, in this content?
Technically, a ghost city is a place that has died, a place that is completely defunct. The population has mostly left. What China has is the opposite of ghost cities—they have cities that are in the process of coming to life. But when you look around, the places kind of look similar—a lot of them lack economic activity; there's a lack of public infrastructure; and, a lot of the time, a lack of a population. But ghost cities is what these places have been labeled as.

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So, essentially, they're developing really slowly, which has led to them being branded ghost cities before they're fully finished?
Yeah. It's kind of the hunt for a sensationalist story—and really, there are few stories more sensational than a country building hundreds of new cities from scratch [and] forcibly relocating hundreds of millions of people. What's actually happening is a good story; unfortunately, it got kind of twisted from the very beginning. The first story on ghost cities came out in 2009, from Al Jazeera. Melissa Chan was in Kangbashi reporting on another story, and she stumbled into this new town of Kangashi and didn't find many people there. The problem with this story is that they only started building this place five years before. Obviously building a new city is something that takes a lot of time.

What kind of throws a lot of Western analysts off is that China can build what appears to be an entire city very, very quickly. Government officials are cycled out of office every five years or so, so if they really want to do something, they have to act fast. So they would build them incredibly quickly, but these places were often not in really inhabitable places; they're pretty much the rough draft put out to show people—potential investors—that they are serious about the project.

But this is only one phase of the lifetime of these new cities. If you went and saw these places, you'd say, "Oh man, there's nobody here—the place is a ghost city." But when you really look at the plan, you see they're made on longer timelines. Generally speaking, these new cities are built on 20 to 23-year plans. This new city building movement in China didn't really get started until 2003, so there's not a single new city that's passed the date of its projected completion.

So they can seem like ghost cities, but really they're in flux?
It's a massive construction project in the midpoint of development. Now, that doesn't mean there aren't problems along the way—there are money problems and political problems and social problems—but it does mean that they're not something you can take a snapshot of right now and expect it to be that way five or ten years down the road. You can go out now and see lots of places that were once called ghost cities that are now clearly not.

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So media misrepresentation came about from not understanding the context of these new cities?
I don't want to seem critical on the work of other journalists. I think the problem is that we arrived at this ghost city narrative from very few firsthand reports. And from these very few sources we got this whole narrative. And once this has happened it becomes a self-fulfilling narrative.

There seems to be a paradox between the luxury homes element of regeneration and Communism.
It's kind of interesting. If you look at the master Chinese socialist plan, this phase of it is justified: "We're gonna become a little more free market, a little more capitalistic, as a way of making everybody rich, and then once everybody is rich or wealthy enough we can have this socialist utopia." So they've built this major phase that looks like a total contradiction into their broader ideal base. It's easy to look at that and call it bullshit—which, you know, it really is, right?

But if you look at it, China has a larger middle class population than the entire population of the USA. Just since the 1940s and 50s, millions of people were starving to death, so a country coming from that to where it is now, as in the general living standard of the average person, is absolutely phenomenal. So if that socialist master [plan] were to happen, it would certainly look similar to what we're seeing. But you know, it's ultimately bullshit.

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